Access to affordable and healthy food is an issue affecting many families across Canada with as many as 1 in 6 Canadian children affected by household food insecurity. Despite this pressing concern, Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program delivering healthy meals to children during school-time hours; putting the onus of students’ nutrition onto parents and caregivers without adequate funding, programming, and nutritional support or guidelines from the government. Community groups and advocacy organizations such as the Coalition for Healthy School Food, are encouraging the federal government to create a universal, healthy, and cost-shared national school food program.
Over the past months, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that Canada’s patchwork approach to school nutrition programs is inadequate to support children’s health, nutrition, and academic success. Food security, already a pressing issue across Canada, has now been made even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic as low-income people are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, demonstrating the immediate need to implement innovative policy approaches to ending food insecurity.
Programs are not just about getting kids food when they are hungry, they also increase the consumption of healthy foods. Access to and consumption of healthy foods for children and youth was already a concern ahead of the pandemic with children ages 8-14 consuming more than 50% of their daily energy intake from ultra-processed food. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, surveys demonstrate that Canadians are increasingly consuming unhealthy food which is worrying experts including Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, are worried about the reported increased consumption of junk food during the COVID-19 pandemic.
School food programs, such as breakfast and mid-day snack delivery, ensure that students are fed and therefore better able to concentrate throughout the day. These programs have proven to be successful, as participating students are likely to score higher on educational assessments and are more likely to graduate high school. Despite this evidence, programs across Canada’s schools and school districts vary and are mostly delivered through partnerships with nonprofit organizations due to the lack of a uniform approach.
The various ways that school food programs have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic is evidence of this patchwork approach. In mid-March, when schools across Canada were closed because of concerns of COVID-19 community transmission, almost all school food programs were indefinitely suspended without notice or significant public discussion by elected leaders. COVID-19 is exacerbating the vulnerability that food-insecure families face due to forced economic closures and limited social assistance programs. With the added school closures, families who relied upon those free or low-cost meals had to find alternative means of filling the nutritional gap normally provided by school meal programs.
Provinces and territories have implemented various approaches to continuing access to school food for students; these approaches not only differ between jurisdictions but are often community-specific and are typically defined by the needs of local stakeholders. Agencies and organizations that provide school food have had to quickly adapt to changing public health information and protocols in order to keep students, staff, and families safe. The Coalition for Healthy School Food has compiled a list of media articles detailing the work of these community organizations across Canada.
In British Columbia, when Education Minister Fleming announced the cancellation of schools, he made a quick remark that the government was liaising with school boards regarding essential services, including school food programs. Now, in Victoria, food banks are struggling to meet the increased demand as they are being looked at to fill the gaps in a way they were not needed or expected to before.
In Alberta, Premier Kenny announced that funding for school food programs would not be disrupted due to the pandemic; regardless, the associated program closures because of COVID-19 was swift. The Alberta government continued funding food programs, run by local school districts, as per normal and provided an extra $3 million in funding distributed between nine communities in the province. Despite requesting that programming continue as per normal, after two weeks of cancelled classes it was not clear how even the largest school boards would continue their school meal programs, demonstrating a significant disruption in service delivery.
A very different approach was taken in Newfoundland and Labrador where the provincial government is working with stakeholders and partners during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that food is being supplied to those who need it during this difficult time. To accomplish this, the provincial government has partnered with various school food associations such as Kids Eat Smart Foundation and the School Lunch Association, ensuring that some of the province’s most vulnerable individuals are being fed.
These differing approaches demonstrate the need for a national school food program that is prioritized by all levels of government. While programs must be community-based, allowing for programming to reflect the needs of local communities; the gaps in policy between jurisdictions need to be addressed to support students and their families. This would allow students and their communities an alternative to this patchwork approach to accessing healthy and nutritious food.
The creation of a school food program is not enough – it needs to be enacted upon and protected through deliberate policy action and championship by key decision-makers in consultation with local communities. School food is built into Canada’s 2019 National Food Policy as the country’s first-ever food policy, and includes a commitment of the federal government to work with the provinces and territories to develop a national school food program; however, the school program has not yet been implemented. This shows that school food programs fill a crucial need and that despite this evidence, little motivation exists in policy circles to implement the needed program.
School meal programs ensure that every student has access to healthy food and is not hungry during the school day. This concern is even more significant during the COVID-19 pandemic with school schedules disrupted and students learning from home. The inability to consistently access food programs such as school food makes it even more difficult for families, especially those who were already food insecure, to make ends meet. School food is an essential service that needs to be a priority in how governments consider services provided at school. Ultimately, this shows that as a nation, not enough focus is placed on the importance of food, and if we are to move forward, school food programs need a comprehensive federal approach.
Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified long-standing vulnerabilities within Canada’s food system. News reports have highlighted, for example, grocery stores’ struggles to keep certain items stocked, livestock herds being culled in huge numbers due to bottlenecks at meat processing plants, and produce sitting wasting in farmers’ fields due to restaurant closures and migrant labour shortages. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the structural insufficiencies of the country’s food system, including unreasonably long supply chains, and an overreliance on just-in-time global imports and high-input farming. This newfound awareness has changed consumer behaviour and increased demand for locally grown foods, and many Canadians have looked to non-traditional outlets to put food on the table. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, for example, have seen a surge in registrations nationwide, with many farms across Ontario moving operations online to meet consumer demand. Although public support for a renewed, locally driven Canadian food system is increasing, a transition to such a system may not be feasible.
Unfortunately, government policies and priorities have set us up with a food system that focuses on food as a tradeable commodity, and the agricultural sector as an economic engine, rather than an essential contributor to Canadians’ health and well-being. COVID-19 has exemplified the impact that disaster can have on such a food system, including unjust working conditions and unprecedented processing backlogs. The severity of impacts such as these will only continue to increase as the climate crisis worsens and the likelihood of similar disasters intensifies. Nonetheless, one thing remains certain throughout all disasters: everyone needs to eat. Given how few Canadians are directly involved in farming, despite increasing public support for locally grown foods, most people are unaware of the kinds of government policies and programs that must be reconfigured to ensure farmers are supported and able to contribute to a more resilient food future for Canada.
What supports are available to Canadian farmers?
For decades, the Government of Canada has supported the agricultural sector through the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). In recent years, AAFC has implemented several business risk management programs, designed to help producers offset income and production losses incurred from a disaster. Among these programs are AgriRecovery, AgriInvest, AgriInsurance, and most notably, AgriStability. The AgriStability program provides support to farmers when they experience a large margin decline. Program participants, ranging from communal organizations to individual farmers, may receive AgriStability payments if their farm’s production margin falls below 70% of their reference margin for the program year.
In light of COVID-19, AAFC has increased interim program payments from 50% to 75% of estimated final benefits. While this increase would provide additional funds to program participants across the country, it does not address the fundamental flaws in the AgriStability program. A convoluted application process, paired with lengthy wait times to receive program payments (which have worsened as a result of COVID-19), have transformed the supports meant to ease financial burden into an administrative hassle. These flaws have existed since the program’s initial release and have been cited by many as the reason for low program enrolment. In times of crisis, waiting months for emergency payments can be especially detrimental for small-scale family farms, which often lack the logistical capabilities and financial assets of corporate-run farms. Similar critiques have been raised with regard to the government’s Surplus Food Rescue Program, introduced in response to the pandemic to assist in the management and redirection of existing food surpluses. The requirements of the program favour corporate-run farms, as priority has been given to applicants with the experience and capacity to handle surplus, from purchase to distribution, in the most cost-effective way.
How are farmers reacting?
While the shortcomings of agricultural risk management programs like AgriStability have been amplified by COVID-19, it should be noted that the Canadian agricultural sector fervently advocated for program reform in the years prior to the pandemic. However, after years of inadequate responses on the part of the Canadian government, the agricultural sector has been left largely unsupported in navigating the COVID-19 food landscape. Understandably, Canadian farmers and agricultural organizations have grown increasingly frustrated over the lack of assistance provided to agricultural workers during the pandemic.
As nationwide consensus from agricultural organizations confirms the inadequacies of current COVID-19 assistance programs, what steps should be taken to provide support for farmers in crisis? While current programs like AgriStability would benefit from reconfiguration, focus should remain on long-term solutions, both during and after the pandemic. The National Farmers Union has emphasized the need for long-term agricultural investments rather than emergency programming, as public investments in stable farm operations will create a stronger system, thereby reducing the need for emergency payments. The NFU has also recommended a move away from agribusiness and highly concentrated farm ownership in order to create a system that not only welcomes, but actively supports family farms. Food Secure Canada has also provided numerous recommendations for post-pandemic policies, which include policies that incentivize ecologically sustainable farming practices, support local and regional food webs, promote Indigenous food sovereignty, and champion fair wages and justice for all food system workers.
Despite the unfortunate conditions endured by farmers across the country, the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic have provided an extraordinary opportunity for change to occur within the food system. Renewed government programming would provide more to the agricultural sector than support for farmers in crisis. If implemented correctly, new agricultural support programs could promote ecological farming practices (incentivizing low-input, climate-friendly approaches in particular), support Indigenous food sovereignty, and improve food security nationwide. A resilient food future is possible in Canada, but it must start with supporting Canadian farmers.
April 22, 2017. A bean seedling in the Fresh City Farms greenhouse at Downsview Park. Member Farmers have access to greenhouse space for the first few months of the growing season to cultivate seedlings and prepare for outdoor transplant. When the pandemic started, Member Farmers at Fresh City Farms were still allowed to use the greenhouse, with limitations on the number of people working inside at the same time.
July 16, 2017. Several flowers blooming on a sunflower stalk. In the background, the busy Keele and Sheppard intersection bustles. We often hear cars honking and people chatting as the soundtrack for our farming experience.
May 16, 2018. Sunset at Downsview Park after an evening of farming. Crops are sheltered from pests by a row cover, which is anchored in place using bricks and pipes brought from home.
August 28, 2019. Our 2019 garlic and potato yields. Of the 550 bulbs harvested that year, the largest bulbs were further separated into 750 cloves to be planted during Thanksgiving weekend. The remaining bulbs were stored for use throughout the year, or given to family and friends for planting and consumption. Our family shares many of our extra yields with other farmers, friends, and neighbours, in order to share our farming experience
April 18, 2020. In the early days of pandemic-related closures, farming provided much-needed time outside for my family. Uninterrupted land access was critical in mitigating some negative physical and mental health effects of the pandemic, demosntrating why community gardens should stay open during times such as these.
June 14, 2020. A row of thriving swiss chard plants. While many plants, planted at the start of pandemic-related closures Urban growers who could not access land in the first few months of restrictions missed a critical time for planting seedlings, thus delaying the time to harvest and reducing their crop diversity for this season.
June 14, 2020. A view of Fresh City Farms with the Keele and Sheppard intersection in the horizon. The large open space at the farm makes it easy for Member Farmers to adhere to physical distancing measures during the pandemic.
June 28, 2020. In regular years, Fresh City Farms hosts weekly U-Picks where the public can come to the farm to pick and buy their own produce. While the U-Picks are not running this summer, Fresh City has installed a fridge next to the field, stocked with produce for self-serve, so the public can still visit the farm to grab some fresh vegetables.
This past March marked the start of my family’s fourth growing season as Member Farmers at Fresh City Farms. After planning through the winter months, it was finally time to plant our seedlings in the Downsview Park greenhouse, and prepare our 2000 square feet of land for another summer of farming. As the Government of Ontario began to close down schools, non-essential businesses, and recreational areas in March, Fresh City Farms remained open, being a critical element of the Toronto urban food system. Thus, our growing season was allowed to commence with relatively little disruption.
In normal years, our growing season goes roughly as follows: in March and April, we plant and transplant seedlings in the greenhouse to facilitate their initial growth; in May and June, we transfer our seedlings to our outdoor space, and directly sow other crops; and from July to October, we maintain our plot and harvest produce. This year’s growing season did not deviate much from previous years—at least not as a result of COVID-19. The long cold spell in May killed some of our seedlings and delayed time to harvest for others, but we were mainly allowed to go about our duties as usual with some restrictions on greenhouse practices and social gatherings at the farm.
While we were previously allowed to visit the greenhouse anytime to work or check on seedlings, Member Farmers are now required to sign up for time slots to work, and only three farmers are allowed in the greenhouse at a time. We can no longer host barbecues and potlucks to share produce and home-cooked dishes among Member Farmers, due to physical distancing measures. Pandemic-related closures have also affected the food distribution process for urban farmers. Many Member Farmers sell their produce, flowers, and herbs at local Farmers’ Markets or U-Picks organized by Fresh City Farms, the former of which has only recently reopened, and the latter of which will not be reopening for the foreseeable future.
For my family, these restrictions are inconvenient but widely overshadowed by the benefits of being able to continue farming through the pandemic. Through urban agriculture, we have had a space for outdoor exposure and physical activity, we can still socialize with other Member Farmers from afar, and we are able to distribute produce to friends and family by being mindful about physical distancing. In reality, while the pandemic has not significantly impacted our activities at Fresh City Farms, the urban farming experience has in fact improved our pandemic lifestyle. By regularly engaging in physical activity, connecting to nature, and maintaining some socialization, we have been able to stay physically and mentally healthy during the wholly stressful and unusual time of COVID-19.
My family and I have benefitted greatly from being able to maintain uninterrupted access to growing space. However, many urban growers were not so lucky. This past March, as our growing season was starting, the Government of Ontario closed community and allotment gardens, thus taking away the growing space that many urban gardeners require. After strong public advocacy, including from Sustain Ontario, Toronto Urban Growers, and the Toronto Food Policy Council, the Government of Ontario issued an order on April 25 allowing the use of community and allotment gardens in Ontario. The initial closure of urban gardens demonstrated a strong risk that urban community food systems could close in a pandemic situation—what would happen to urban growers and other residents if urban food systems, including businesses such as Fresh City Farms, were forced to close?
Urban food systems are an important source of food for many growers, particularly those facing food insecurity. My family is able to grow a diverse group of vegetable produce, with yields around 2-3 times more than we need to be self-sufficient (in terms of vegetable consumption, for our family of four). For food-insecure individuals and families, even a fraction of 2000 square feet could make a large impact in encouraging healthy, vegetable-rich diets. For example, the City of Toronto offers allotment gardens with 200 square feet of growing space, which would likely be enough to support 1-2 individuals for the summer (depending on production and consumption).
In addition to nutrition- and diet-related impacts, the health benefits of urban growing include increased physical activity, and improved mental health. Urban gardens also provide an important source of community and social interaction, even with physical distancing measures in place. And for individuals who have lost income due to the pandemic, urban growing can help to reduce food costs of a household, and even become a source of income through produce sales. If urban food systems, both public and private, were to close again due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then all these benefits—health, social, and economic—would be lost.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity for cities to reflect on the importance of urban agriculture. The positive impacts of community gardens, particularly during a time of social and physical isolation, highlight the ways that urban food systems can benefit people’s livelihoods in cities. Ultimately, developing strong and far-reaching community garden networks can help not only to mitigate the isolating effects of a pandemic, but also to improve the daily lives of urban residents.
For more information on Fresh City Farms, click here.
Modified July 2, 2020: The list of groups who advocated for community garden reopening was expanded to contain Toronto-based groups, and the link to the health benefits of urban growing was modified to better summarize and reflect the main research findings in urban agriculture.
A third migrant worker’s death in Ontario only highlights long-standing injustices in the agricultural programs that bring these workers to Canada
Written by Stella-Luna Ha
‘Migrant Workers’ may be a term that hardly rings a bell for many Canadians when they think about the local food system. This has changed recently though given that they are now in the spotlight as, for example, migrant workers were reported as representing 80 out of 404 new COVID-19 cases in Ontario on the first day of June alone. Approximately, 60,000 foreign workers arrive in Canada each year to work in farms or fisheries under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). As I was reaching the end of TheStar article reporting on a third death of a migrant worker in Southwestern Ontario, I couldn’t help but to scroll down to the comment section. There I found two common themes with regard to the topic. One is a demonstration of the ‘whataboutism’ logical fallacy, as people respond to this loss of lives with a throw-their-hands-in-the-air exclamation: everybody dies, and a great many people have died as a result of COVID-19, so why should we prioritize mourning these workers? The second theme is a populist sentiment that points to the question: Why don’t we simply hire Canadians to save us these troubles in the agricultural system?
Why Should We Care About the Lives of Migrant Workers?
The sanctity of life is well established. To shift our focus away from the so-called ‘all lives matter’ narrative, however, is to give these powerless communities a voice and an opportunity to gain equity in the system that has been marginalizing and exploiting them for far too long. ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’ as the saying goes, and there is no point in diminishing the significance of migrant workers’ deaths by equating them with others that have occurred in the midst of the pandemic. Migrant workers have played a regular and important role in making Canada’s agricultural system work for decades now, and while they regularly face abuses at the hands of unscrupulous employers, the fact that they are now risking their lives to grow and harvest food in this country raises the significance of their struggles to an unprecedented level.
Why Can’t We Hire Canadian?
Imagine, you’re reading a hiring ad that involves working in a remote location away from home, receiving a pitiful salary, having no access to collective bargaining, and living in fairly crude accommodations. In addition, you may have poor access to sufficient and nutritious food during the quarantine you must endure before starting work, and your employer may engage in unfair gouging of your wages for meals and other costs. You know that the already back-breaking workload will only be exacerbated since there is a labour shortage due to COVID-19, and you’re also aware that PPE may be unavailable, and that physical distancing may be impossible to practice in the workplace. In addition, if you make any complaints about your working conditions, you may well be fired.
Would you take this job? Most Canadians would, and do, respond to this with a clear ‘No’. Although some Canadians have taken up farm work during the pandemic, due to other jobs being unavailable, many farm owners would probably not hire you for two reasons: (1) Your citizenship and rights make you less ripe for exploitation, and (2) You are inefficient and expensive. It is a myth that any person who is physically fit can take up farm work. The migrants who come to toil in Canada’s agricultural landscapes are skilled workers, typically having years of relevant experience, as well as technical know-how that allows them to repair farm machinery when needed, work effectively and efficiently with plants and livestock, and solve problems as they arise. In addition, this labour is coming to us at an incredible bargain. Would consumers likely be willing or able to pay double or triple the price of a head of romaine lettuce, and all of the other locally produced food, as a result of a ‘Hire Canadians Only’ approach?
A few words of pity or gratitude for migrant workers won’t solve this systemic problem. We need to push for legislative changes. Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero may have been one of the first migrant workers to lose his life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, generating increased coverage of the plight of these agricultural workers, but how many other unnamed Bonifacios might we have missed over the years?
The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series is a collection of brief reflections on food system developments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These photos show interactions with the food system that citizens are experiencing everyday. It is a collection that is expanding as the crisis unfolds showing the changing nature of our current food system.
Spring seedlings sprout up in greenhouse on a small-scale ecological vegetable farm in Prince Edward County. This farm typically sells its produce in Toronto, including through farmers markets, which were delayed in opening due to COVID-19 restrictions
A barn at a small-scale livestock farm near London, Ontario houses cows, pigs, and chickens. Mixed farms like this one are involved in both direct sales to customers, as well as the sale of commodity crops that may be transported further afield, including overseas.
A tractor sits idle at a small-scale organic vegetable farm near Kitchener. Farms like this one focus on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, many of which saw a notable increase in membership subscriptions at the outset of the pandemic.
The silhouette of a steer (beef cow) stands out against the setting sun. With the closing of some large-scale meat processing plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks, many livestock farmers have been struggling to find places to have their animals slaughtered. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many smaller-scale, local abattoirs have closed down in recent years.
A summer breeze sweeps across a grain field at an organic vegetable farm near Gananoque, in eastern Ontario. Many farms had to rapidly reconfigure their business plans at the outset of the pandemic, particularly if they relied on sales to restaurants.
From being labelled ‘heroes’ and ‘essential workers’ to losing pay premiums in the midst of a crisis: What happens to frontline food workers when the pandemic is over?
I recently came across an article published in The Atlantic which has been on my mind. It voices the frustration of a frontline grocery store worker who is tired of being called a ‘hero’. The article’s title, Calling Me a Hero Only Makes You Feel Better,strongly suggests thatfrontline workers, even as they are hailed as heroes, struggle with the challenge of making a living wage, and that ‘hero’ is a meaningless label in terms of that struggle.
On June 11, Loblaw’s chairman Galen Weston announced the termination of the $2 per hour premium that had been introduced in light of the pandemic. Mr. Weston argues that since grocery store workers have now adjusted to the “new normal” in their workplaces, the $2 “hero pay” supplement is no longer necessary. This logic seems to assume that since the majority of Ontario regions have entered Stage 2 of the Province’s reopening plans, the wage increase is not needed. In other words, everyone can just return to the way things were pre-pandemic. This assumption flies in the face of the evidence that frontline workers continue to face considerable risks. It ignores the disconnect between the meagre pay of food workers and the soaring profits for such companies. It ignores that many grocery workers find it a challenge to make a living wage.
The praise that corporate food executives have bestowed upon frontline workers rings hollow in this light. Indeed, in these challenging times, offering the title of ‘heroes’ to these grocery store and other food workers simply masks other underlying issues, including that many of them have little choice but to continue to work despite the heightened risks that such jobs continue to entail. This results in a cognitive dissonance among the public, which eagerly anticipate some sort of ‘normalcy’, while paying lip-service and contributing to the myth-making around these frontline workers as ‘heroes’. For the latter, a return to such a ‘normal’ is far from satisfactory. Clearly, if the $2 hero pay can evaporate so easily, so can the disposable title of ‘hero’ in a post-pandemic world.
The silver lining of this pandemic may be that it exposes for us all to see how fragile our food system is in terms of supply chains, and the vulnerability of the precariat—the class of workers whose jobs entail considerable risks in a crisis situation, and who regularly face sub-normal working conditions, pay, and job insecurity during ‘normal’ times. The important contributions made by workers throughout the food system are worth considering in this regard. Every one of us has the obligation to meaningfully support grocery store workers, farmers and farm workers, and everyone else who labours in the harvesting, packing, transportation, stocking and delivery of food, in struggles for decent wages and working conditions. Not just in these crazy times, but after the pandemic is over. Just calling them ‘heroes’ is not enough.
Written by Stella-Luna Ha
The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series is a collection of brief reflections on food system developments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.